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Tabi-tabi Pô and the Nunô sa Punsô

Because I am Filipino, I cannot – to this day – take a pee beside a mound of earth, a thick old tree trunk, some leftover grub or even just tall reeds without uttering – under my breath just in case somebody is within hearing distance and think I am being silly – the obligatory “tabi-tabi pô!” To foreigners who may happen to stumble upon this article, we Filipinos likewise believe in washrooms; but sometimes, when there is none in the immediate vicinity, we have no qualms – I mean the men, generally – about finding somewhere – anywhere – convenient. We do modestly turn our backs to people.

That obligatory utterance is one of the countless things one simply learns as a matter of course in childhood from one’s elders. Directly translated, it is an address to any unseen entities on the ground politely asking them to please step aside or they may suddenly find themselves stepped upon or unceremoniously taking a somewhat lemon-coloured and salty shower. The polite request, if you have not figured it out, is made of the unseen, universally folkloric and diminutive entity, the elf.

In the Philippines – or least among us Tagalogs – we generally call the elf the dwende. The dwende can be your mischievous house dweller who plays the occasional prank like moving things around the house from where you normally expect them to be. They can also be those innocuous creatures who, when it takes their fancy, show themselves to children playing in the yard or the garden.

There is this type of dwende, though, that is known not at all for mischief but more for being grumpy. Here is where we return to the pee-in-the-open scenario.

The tabi-tabi pô is the short version for “tabi-tabi pô mamay punsô” – there are variants depending on how one learns it from one’s elders – or “please step aside old man.” From this we can all infer that the original admonition by the elders was to make the request when one had to pee anywhere close to a punsô or a mound of earth. In time, one just sort of naturally learns to say that request anywhere grubby but most especially in forested lands or among tall reeds.

The mamay punsô also tells us that this type of elf is thought of as elderly since the word mamay is old Tagalog for grandfather. Since folklore is word-of-mouth, we assume that there were those among our ancestors who were blessed with the ability to see what was unseen to most people; and that these dwendes had the diminutive form of elderly men. Hence, the mamay punsô is still referred to these days as the nunô sa punsô, or the elderly man who lives in the mound of earth.

The curious may wish to ask, why make the request at all? Will you not get out of the way if King Kong stands beside you to take a pee? I have thought about that as well; and I have no answer. One just utters the tabi-tabi pô, anyway. It is simply the proper and respectful thing to do.

We all eventually discover as we grow up that the punsô is nothing but an anthill. But go find a Filipino who will deliberately pee on one. It is not so much that we have not moved on to modernity. Instead, it is just being wary of the what-if. There is no bother to moving a few feet away to relieve oneself just in case our ancestors knew something we really do not.

I have also known grown men refuse to dig up anthills. So much for supposed Filipino machismo. My own father, though, had no such reservations; and to be truthful, he was none the worse but for a few beads of sweat. Still, do not ask me to dig up an anthill because I will refuse as well. It is that what-if again – the what-if-there-is-a-nunô-by-the-punsô, never mind that there is really no way to tell.

The stories of what could happen – all unverified, undocumented and probably embellished – if one accidentally stepped or peed on a nunô told as one grew up were horrifying. The mamay punsô’s retribution was immediate!

I am sure the stories vary as per locality; but I used to hear of people whose feet or legs suddenly started swelling for no reason at all. There were those whose privates supposedly started to swell abnormally large; albeit, as one grew up, one wondered if that was such a bad thing at all. If one wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Holmes, that is.

Some found themselves mysteriously struck with high fever. Some became unconscious for days on end. Often – or so the stories went – medical doctors could not find adequate explanations for whatever malaise had struck the unfortunate persons. So, the neighbourhood albularyo – a shaman – had to be called in to perform his rituals.

Sometimes, it took no more than a pagtatawas – a ritual in which the shaman uttered some incantations, lit a candle and then allowed the wax to fall onto a vat of water. The wax, people who had supposedly witnessed such rituals say – mysteriously took on the form of the nunô. The fact that the source of the spell that caused the malaise was exposed – or so people say – was often enough to cure the afflicted person. In more severe cases, the shaman needed to offer foods or sacrifice an animal – often a chicken – to appease the nunô.

I do not personally know of any living human being who can claim to have had an actual first-hand experience of the nunô sa punsô. I will not be surprised if this is true as well for most other people. Still, I do not hesitate to say tabi-tabi pô whenever I have to go near an anthill or have to relieve myself somewhere masukal. It is all part and parcel of being a Filipino, I guess; and whether there is any truth to our beliefs does not really matter because, in the end, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by just being careful and respectful.

Whether they are there or not…

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